Diane Wood walked this route before.
It was spring 1999, and her cousin, 25-year-old Leon Washington, had gone missing. As far as she knew, he’d last been seen here, along this strip of unlined asphalt called Beazley Lane just outside Bowling Green in Caroline County.
Wood, along with dozens of others, had searched this road and these woods for Washington but found no sign of him.
Eight months later, on a Saturday morning in December, three hunters discovered a badly decomposed body in the area they had searched. It was Leon Washington, and he’d either hanged himself or been hanged by a belt from a tree branch, authorities said. He’d been dead for months.
Within days of the discovery, the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office said preliminary evidence pointed to suicide. Washington’s family did not believe it, and relatives and members of the Caroline County NAACP called on the Virginia State Police to investigate the death as a hate crime. Washington, who was Black, was at odds with the family of a white woman he’d been dating, according to a story in The Free Lance–Star.
Twenty years passed without an arrest or official ruling.
This Saturday, just four days after what would have been Washington’s 46th birthday, Wood and her sister, Mauricia Crutchfield, began another walk down this road, this time with a group of at least 25.
They knew they wouldn’t find their cousin. But they hoped they would find answers.
“As time goes by, people forget,” Crutchfield said. “We haven’t forgotten. We can’t forget.”
America was having a reckoning. The death of another Black man in America while in police custody—this time George Floyd in Minneapolis in May—had set off a wave of protests against around the nation.
Once, years before, as Washington’s case went unsolved, relatives and friends held a candlelight vigil. But Wood said local authorities threatened her with arrest if they marched.
Now, she knew better. And she wanted to march not just for Washington but for all the other Black men who she believes deserve more than what they got.
“This is for all the other deaths that went unsolved. It’s a new time, a new age. Everybody is one,” Wood said as a crowd gathered in the parking lot of the Caroline Community Center across the highway from Beazley Lane.
She and Crutchfield organized the group into a circle for an opening prayer. They wore masks and touched fists—no hand-holding in the time of COVID-19.
“Thank you for this moment and for what this moment means,” Caroline County NAACP President Duane Fields Sr. prayed. “The truth will come out.”
Then, escorted by Caroline County Sheriff Major Scott Moser who’d joined in the prayer, they crossed U.S. 301 and began a walk down the last road Washington was ever seen.
Crutchfield and Wood had no brothers, so as kids, they’d sort of adopted Washington as their own.
Crutchfield remembers him as the comedian, the one who taught her and her sisters how to stand up for themselves. But as early as 1994, Washington found himself in trouble with the law. That August, the 20-year-old was charged with maiming during a dispute with his grandfather. At the time he went missing in 1999, he was wanted on several charges, including assault on the woman he’d been dating.
When Washington disappeared, deputies from Caroline traveled to Fredericksburg and Maryland in search of the man then considered a fugitive.
Yet he’d been found close to home. Wood believes Washington’s criminal history was a factor in how his death was investigated at that time.
“He was a person. Nobody’s child … deserves what happened to him,” she said.
Moser, the Sheriff’s major, offered some reassurance. The case of Leon Washington was not closed, he told the group. Had never been closed. “Obviously, we’re interested in justice, whichever way it falls.”
They called it a prayer walk.
They had not come here to accuse anybody, Crutchfield and Wood said. They wanted to remember Washington in a good way.
They also want justice. For Washington and for others.
“Justice will be served for Leon Washington,” Wood said into a bullhorn, and the crowd behind her began a refrain that has echoed around the nation and the world since May.
“No justice,” they said. “No peace.”
The walked for a mile, past fields and homes and ditches lined with litter. Neighbors watched. One man waved.
Near the end of the road, corn grew chest high and an old abandoned farmhouse stood in the distance. Rumors once circulated that Washington hid out there. On the other side of the road, hunters had found his body.
"You are my strength," the group sang, "strength like no other."
Alice Wood, Leon’s aunt, spoke of forgiveness.
“Even when we find out who did this, we have to love them. We don’t love the crime. We still have to forgive. Whoever did this is still God’s child. Whoever did it, you are already forgiven,” Alice Wood said.
“It’s a new day. Black Lives Matter. We’re not saying police officers’ lives don’t matter or that all lives don’t matter,” said Anthony Coghill, who’d served as a pallbearer at Washington’s funeral and still remembered his cousin in tears. “We’re just asking that our lives be equivalent.”